Prom: dressing up for adulthood

Prom season is upon us, that American high school ritual that marks the end of the school year all over our country.  Many of us attended our Proms while others decided to decline participation. Others of us, perhaps, made a brief appearance, equal parts ironic and intrigued.  Whether we participated or not, most of us were not immune to the draw of such an event. Would we ask someone or wait to be asked? Would we go with a group or not, who would be included, who wouldn’t?  What if we weren’t asked at all? Prom marks a moment in the school year that wants to preview the coming of adulthood: the formal dress, dinner parties, the inclination, realized or not, to arrive in special transportation. All of these elements take students out of the ordinary routine of being with each other as teenagers.

Prom PicAs an educator, I regard prom with a certain degree of ambivalence.  It is fun to see our students dressed up, so clearly the image of the adults they will become.  We who chaperone inevitably comment on how much the students have grown and grown up, mirroring, I am sure, the conversations taking place among their parents, following their departure, after photos are taken, ties straightened, and corsages attached.  And yet, I will confess that I find myself a little nervous, a little on edge until the next school day. Only then can I relax, certain that everyone has made it home safely.  Indeed they return to school, utterly recognizable as the young people I know, backpacks slung over shoulders, moving quickly to first period to avoid a late slip.

Something about Prom seems to invite the complexity of adult choices into our students’ lives, perhaps a little too soon.  I find myself wanting to say, “slow down, there is plenty of time.”  Even as I am about to utter these words though, I also realize that my concern comes from another place as well, one that recognizes that adulthood is indeed closer.  In the midst of this moment of dressing up, I also understand it as a dress rehearsal.

The end of the year brings inevitable reflections about what has happened and what hasn’t.  It is a moment to understand that a year takes a course, partially shaped by our choices, partially shaped by things beyond our control.  As I imagine our students, writing final papers, collaborating in their culminating experiences, asking someone to prom or being asked, I know that they are growing up.  I want them to find their own agency in the world, creating joy and meaning for themselves and those surrounding them.  I’ll admit that I want them to step carefully in their lives, but most importantly, I want them to step.

Prom is as inevitable as our students’ growing up.  How can we not want to weigh in with one last piece of advice, another comment about our own past? Why would we resist seeing their future as a little bit of an expression of our own?  Summer is just around the corner for our students, a time that brings its own kind of growing up. As the adults who love and support them, our challenge is to help them to learn how to shape their lives, to make good choices, to be resilient when it doesn’t go their way.  And, at the right moment, to step aside, to let them go.

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About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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